There’s a myth that original thinkers, be they pioneering inventors or disruptive business leaders, never shrink back from opportunities to push the envelope. They’re naturally ambitious. Born that way. Free of the self-doubt that holds others back.
It’s not true. As a journalist, I’ve interviewed scores of entrepreneurs over the years. They’ve all had one surprising thing in common: they’re not special. They have the same doubts and insecurities as everyone else.
It’s difficult to imagine greater or braver accomplishments than those achieved by Roz Savage MBE, holder of four Guinness World Records and the first (and only) woman to row solo across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. Savage agrees it’s a myth that some people are cut out for risk or adventure.
What do you want people to say?
“Looking back 20 years, I never expected that I would be able to do the things I’ve done,” she says. “To do anything out of the ordinary, whether that’s start a business or pursue adventure, I really thought you had to be that kind of a person.”
A sequence of realisations shifted Savage’s thinking. Whilst reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, she wrote two versions of her own obituary. One detailed the things she’d like people to say about her after her death. The other imagined what they’d say if she continued the life she was living.
“The things I wanted people to say of me were: ‘She lived courageously and made the world a better place’ or ‘She was a good friend’,” she explains. “Not ‘She had a lovely house’ or ‘I really liked that skirt she wore’.”
The exercise prompted Savage to recognise “that we are not immortal and do not have forever”, which led to seismic lifestyle changes.
“I had to tear up my value system and start again, which entailed leaving lots of things, including my job as a management consultant, my marriage and hence my home,” she says. “I really just exploded everything in my life, which is actually very liberating, as you stop caring what other people think.”
Despite the liberation, Savage acknowledges that changing direction can be extremely daunting. “I had to figure out who I was and what I could offer, but things can get scary when we stop jumping through other people’s hoops and start forging our own path,” she says.
“Especially if you’ve been really good at jumping through other people’s hoops, which gets you lots of pats on the back – if you’re not careful, you can end up doing the things that get you those rounds of applause, instead of pursuing the unique thing that each of us is here to do.”
Fear can be fuel
As well as debunking the myth that pioneers don’t feel fear, Savage’s story illustrates that fear and self-doubt can actually help us do things no-one else has done.
“Growing up, I was governed by must and should and ought, so for me to seek happiness felt self indulgent, even a bit selfish,” she explains. “One of my biggest doubts was ‘Who am I to feel entitled to be happy?’ Whereas now, at 50, I have a very different philosophy. I think if we’re not happy, it’s a really important clue that perhaps we’re not doing what we’re meant to be doing.”
An environmental awakening inspired Savage’s record-breaking achievements. A similar sense of enlightenment echoes through the stories of many original thinkers. But that doesn’t mean they never question it. “I became dramatically aware, in a short space of time, that humans were really messing up the earth quite badly and we needed do things differently,” she says.
“Then, this crazy idea popped into my head one day when I was driving – it was quite literally the call to adventure – I could row across oceans, using that to get people’s attention and talk about the environment.”
While her heart “knew that this was the right course of action”, Savage says her brain was slower to agree.
“I think the previous few years of my life had been leading up to this moment but then my head jumped in, with all the reasons why it was a terribly bad idea,” she explains. “It’s the brain’s job to keep us safe, so by definition it doesn’t like us to do things we haven’t done before. I’ve learned to say: ‘Thank you, brain, you’re doing a great job and I’ll take into account all the very valid points you’ve made, but I know, in my heart, this is what I want and need and feel called to do.”
It’s normal to feel scared
Overcoming initial doubts at the early stage of doing something new or risky is one thing. But what happens when it turns out, in practice, to be scarier than anticipated?
“When I was rowing my first ocean, the Atlantic, I was really miserable and indignant because I thought that somehow life was going to reward me for my courage, but instead it just kicked me to bits on a daily basis and everything that could go wrong, did,” says Savage.
“Consequently, I wasted an awful lot of mental energy asking: ‘Can I do this, do I have what it takes?’. Eventually I realised that was a bogus question. The only way to find out was to keep on doing it.”
Motivation is everything
That’s a sentiment shared by business coach, author and speaker Ali Golds. Driven and determined to succeed, she considers herself a pioneer but says she struggles with self-doubt on a regular basis.
“I don’t feel invincible or make decisions that I never doubt, because I'm human and vulnerable, just like everyone else,” she says.
“I might take risks that other people wouldn't consider in a million years, but that doesn't mean I haven't agonised about them. I see it this way; my life is a one time ride. If I don't make the best of it now, I'm never going to get another chance. Would I rather sit on the sidelines and watch everyone else’s achievements, or would I like to join in and achieve things that matter to me? And if that's my decision, am I prepared for things to not go as I’d like; to be a fraction of what I'd hoped for; or to go totally wrong on occasion? I might doubt my abilities, but if I don't try, I'll never know if I could have done it, and not knowing is worse.”
Savage puts it like this: “When your motivation is bigger than your fear you can feel the fear and do it anyway.”
Her advice, to anyone with a goal they’re scared to pursue, is to remind yourself of all the reasons why it’s important to you. “If the goal is connected to a greater cause or higher purpose, reflect on that to pump up your motivation.”
Purpose is key
Nuala Murphy, entrepreneur and founder of maternal mental health app Moment Health, echoes a similar philosophy.
“When self doubt lurks, I remember why I’m doing this – because we want to save lives,” she says.
“As many as 20 per cent of women and 10 per cent of men suffer depression or anxiety during the perinatal period; one in four women suffer maternal mental ill health during pregnancy; and almost a quarter of women who died between six weeks and one year after pregnancy died from mental health related causes. The more apparent it becomes that there is a great need for improved intervention and availability of treatment – not just here but on a global scale – the more I banish self doubt.”
Feedback fuels growth
On the path to pioneering, feedback of all kinds is inevitable. Learning to embrace it, even when it’s unwelcome, is important for staying the course, adds Murphy.
“Because of the problem we are addressing on a global scale, much of the feedback I get is positive and the team has worked well to get us here, but not all feedback has been,” she says.
“Some feedback has been brutal and some has been most unfair, playing to my self-doubts, but I had two options; let it hold us back or let it fuel our growth. Having that overall sense of purpose, as well as terrific mentors and peer support, has enabled me to extract what’s relevant and then move on.”
Celebrate successes, however small
Celebrating triumphs can also help put self-doubt to flight and take the spotlight off setbacks. “Who cares about mistakes? I don’t,” adds Golds.
“I celebrate every achievement, even tiny ones, because without them I’d never have gone on to bigger successes. Sometimes, on dark days, just getting out of bed was an achievement.”
Ultimately, if compelled to pursue a path beset by self-doubt, the most important thing you can do is step forward.
“I no longer think you have to be ‘that kind of a person’ – that original thinkers or pioneers have courage before they take action,” adds Roz.
“Now, I realise we unleash the courage by taking action.”